Sovereignty Under Akbar: Inspirations and Innovative Ideas Dictating the concept of Mughal Kingship

Abul Fazl presenting Akbarnāma to the Emperor

We know that the dual influences of the Turkish and Mongol concepts of sovereignty were inscribed on the polity of the early Mughals, Babur and Humayun. Though contradictory to each other, the Turkish and Mongol theories had certain commonalities as well: both were universal and both were divine. And both the pre-Islamic concepts had been tempered by the new concepts of Islam! But the major difference between the two was marked by the fact that the Mongol sovereignty was divisive, while Turkish sovereignty was not: in the Turkish tradition even the sons of the king had no share. In the Chingizid tradition, as per the Yasa or Tura, all the divine sons enjoyed equal rights and had a legitimate share. Secondly in Turkish concept, the king as compared to the nobles was quite powerful: in fact the nobles were bandagān i Dargah, slave of the threshold, with no powers. Their property could be escheated. In Turā i Chaghtai, the nobles were at par with the khaqan, the king!

In pre-Mughal India the best example of prevalence of Turkish concept of Kingship was represented by Balban’s Theory of Kingship: he was the divine king, given the position by God, and next only to the Prophet. The nobles were the slaves who could not sit before him and had to perform prostration.

Babur being a Timurid, a Turk, was influenced by all this. Plus, he was also under the influence of the Mongol concept. Not only a large number of nobles were of Mongol origin, his mother too was a woman tracing ancestry from Chingiz.

But by the period of Akbar, if we believe Badauni, these concepts were generally fading, especially the Mongol traditions as far as court practices were concerned: they were like “nakhsha bar āb”, tracings over water! However Mongol influences like division of Empire, the primacy of various princes, continued: each son had equal right to the throne! Though noble were treated theoretically as bandagān. Now new concepts started exerting their influences, some of which were quite unique. We will see that now the king was not a “shadow of God”, zillallāh, but he was “light emanating from God”, farr i izadi. Shadow is darkness, thus negative; Light after all is opposite of darkness, thus positive.

On Akbar there were many influences: secular, religious, mystic, indigenous as well as foreign. Akbar’s theory had something or the other to attract and engulf all! It also had elements based on rationalism and scientific reasoning: thus appealing to all irrespective of their religious affiliation!

He was not a Khalifa, but some non-Muslims considered him avatar of Vishnu!

Let us see what concepts went into the making of the theory of Sovereignty under Akbar.

Social Contract

Abul Fazl in the Rawai-i Rozi in Ain-i Akbari put forward the well known theory of Social Contract to justify the sovereign’s Absolute claims over the individual subjects. The social contract was put forward as a justification for sovereignty. The way Abul Fazl puts it, one is reminded of Hobbes. He describes the contradiction of society before the emergence of the sovereign: there was complete instability and anarchy – no man was safe from another. Property, life, honour – nothing was safe. Indeed, property could not emerge, life was short and honour non-existent. In desperation men went to someone, who was able and strong and solicited him to protect them. For this the protector employed soldiers, for whose pay he needed resources. These were provided by the protected people. Out of this arrangement arose the sovereign, taxes and subjects.

Thus in his introduction, Abul Fazl pointed out that no dignity was higher in the eyes of God than royalty. Why? Because: ‘royalty is a remedy for the spirit of rebellion, and reason why people obey’.

Even the term pād in the pādshāh signifies stability and possession. ‘Shah’ on the other hand means origin, lord. A king is therefore, Abul Fazl argues, the origin of stability and possession. He goes on to argue:

“If royalty did not exist, the storm of strife would never subside, nor selfish ambitions disappear. Mankind, being under the burden of lawlessness and lust, would sink into the pit of destruction; the world, this great market place, would lose its prosperity, and the whole earth become a barren waste. But by the light of imperial justice, some follow with cheerfulness the road of obedience, whilst others abstain from violence through fear of punishment; and out of necessity make choice of th path of rectitude.”

Did this ‘contract’ place some limitations on sovereignty? No, says Abul Fazl. It is the moral duty of the subject to submit to the will of the sovereign in respect of his property as well as life. The Sovereign in fact protects the greatest thing of all – the subject’s honour! If in practice there are limitations on the share of subject’s property (i.e. taxes), it is the discretion of the King on grounds of compassion.

This whole theory was something unique: it simply meant that Akbar, as sovereign, theoretically would enjoy absolute powers till he ‘performs’ his part of the contract: the welfare of the people. The strength of this theory lay in its secular character: Akbar was the king, not because it was divinely ordained, or that he belonged to an illustrious lineage. He was no khalifa but a person ‘chosen’ to perform certain duties. If he did not, he could then, as per this theory have no claim to rule. This was but an attempt towards rationalism.

Religious & Mystical Ideas

But then this was not all. After exaltation of blue blood and resorting to rationalism, religious and  mystic philosophical elements were also resorted to. Certain mystical ideas and traditions were invoked to take forward Akbar’s theory of sovereignty.

We know that both the other two contemporary empires had based their sovereignty on religious authority. The Safavids had successfully utilized their past as religious leaders to base their authority on spiritualism: they declared themselves as the leaders of the Shi’ites and the successors of the Twelve Imams. The Ottomans on the other hand took up the mantle from the Abbasids and declared themselves as the Caliphs of the Sunni world.

Akbar’s position on the other hand was quite peculiar: He could not declare himself as the Caliph as that post was not vacant – it lay with the Ottomons. Even otherwise, he presided over an empire which did not comprise a population which would be effected or affected by this idea.

He thus on the one hand resorted to rationalism and the concept of social contract, on the other; he resorted to certain mystical ideas and traditions.

In Ain-i Rahnamuni (The Regulations on Guidance), Abul Fazl lauds Akbar as the insane-i kamil (Perfect Man). According to Badauni, this idea was derived from the pantheistic traditions of Ibn-i Arabi. According to Irfan Habib, however, this doctrine of Perfect Man was derived from Mahmud Pasikhwani, the early 15th Century originator of Wahidiya or Nuqtawiya sect. According to the Nuqtawis, great spiritual souls are born at particular periods of time.

Thus as a Perfect Man, born at a particular point of time in history, Akbar would enjoy absolute powers to shape the lives and destiny of men under him.

Now with this theory, the Sovereign, i.e., Akbar, enjoyed three distinct powers: powers derived as the legitimate successor of Timur and Chingiz, the power derived from the Social Contract between the ruler and the ruled; and now, thirdly, as an obvious ‘Perfect Man’ who was born once in a while to shape society.

The Millennium

Akbar was living at a time when the first millennium was ending and there were speculations that there was no prophecy for the period after that. The change of the millennium meant a change in everything. The Islamic history as known was coming to an end. There was thus much speculation what would come to pass in the new millennium. It was during this period that people talked about a new law and a new leader as per the new needs. There was a rise of new movements like that of Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi who came up with the title of mujaddid-alf sani the redeemer of the second millennium. There was also a growth of Mahdavi movement (eg Shaikh Mubarak). Akbar too minted new coin and started a new calendar and asked for a history of the millennium (Tarikh-i Alfi) to be compiled.

As a ‘protector’ of the society and as the Perfect Man, the Mughal Emperor (read Akbar) tried to regulate not only the marriages of his nobility but also their educational curriculum. Thus the syllabus was formulated by Akbar: he tried to include rational sciences like arithmetic, agriculture, household management, rules of governance, medicine etc in the educational curriculum. Along with it there was stress on reason (aql) which was to be given precedence over traditionalism (taqlid). This stress on rationalism and reason was something quite unique.

Irfan Habib points out that among the two most important functions which Abul Fazl assigns to a just king (kar giya), one is that such a sovereign “shall not seek popular acclaim through opposing reason (aql)”. If there was an attempt in the ain-i rahnamuni to define the relationship between the ruler and the ruled, the subjects, the ain-i rawai-i rozi (Regulations for the Provision of Livelihood) justified the necessity of political authority in the light of the theory of social contract.

In 1579 was added a new dimension: the position of imam-i adil and mujtahid, the arbiter and interpreter of Islamic law. This was something with which the theory of social contract cannot be fully reconciled. Shaikh Mubarak had often pleaded for a special position for th king within the juridical world of Islam. Thus in 1579 the mahzar was drafted by Shaikh Mubarak and a number of other ulema. Through this Akbar was tried to be elevated to the position from where he could interpret law and even legislate – a position enjoyed by great Muslim jurists like Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Shafi’i Imam Malik and Imam Hanbal. The door of ijtihad had since then been closed in the Sunni world by Ghazali. It was now sought to be opened for Akbar. With this position under his belt, there was no need for Akbar to be declared a Caliph. It was a sort of religious justification for his kingship.

Abul Fazl thus claimed that Sovereignty was in the nature of divine light (farr-i izadi) : it was not enough to be just the zill allah or zill-i ilahi (shadow of God). Faizi, in one of his rubaiyat (quatrains) says:

He (Akbar is a king whom on account of his wisdom, we call zu funūn (possessor of the sciences) and our guide on the path of religion. Although kings are the shadow of God (zil allah) on Earth, he is the emanation of God’s light (farr-i īzadi). How then can we call him a shadow?

This stress on Light (nūr) was derived from the Illuminationist (Ishrāqi) philosophy of Shihabuddin Suhrawardi Maqtul (d.1191). Shihabuddin is regarded, besides Ibn Arabi, as one of the most significant exponents of the movement which attempted to explain the Quran and the doctrine of Islam largely in esoteric and allegorical way. His philosophy is traced to Plato’s Republic, where God is presented under the symbol of the Sun without which nothing would exist. He held that ‘the source of all being and thought is…beyond essence, beyond the ideas themselves. To it, man should turn…with his entire soul’. To the Ishraqis the Sun is the symbol of God-derived spiritual light or the Light of Lights (nūr ul anwār), i.e., God, from which, by irradiation emanate the Anwār ul Qahira, the Great Lights.

Shihabuddin’s concluding words in the Partau Nama were to creat a great impression on Akbar’s court:

‘Whoever knows wisdom and is assiduous in praising and revering the Light of Lights (nūr ul anwār), they give him the khurra-i kiyani (Kingly Light) and bestow upon him the farr-i nurani ‘luminous ray’ and the barq-i Ilahi (the lightening-flashing (cloud) of God), clothing him in the robe of authority and status’.

 The ishrāqi (Eastern) School was an Iranian school of philosophy which regarded ‘Being and Knowledge as irradiations of the Pure Light which rises in the East’. All life, all ‘reality’ in the world, according to Suhrawardi, is light given existence by the constant blinding illumination of ‘light of lights’ (nūr ul anwār), i.e., God.

From the disapproving Badauni we learn that his emperor lent an open ear to such associations:

“…Brahmins collected  another set of one thousand and one names of  His Majesty the Sun,’ and told the emperor that he was an incarnation, like Ram, Krishna, and other infidel kings.”

 At Akbar’s court Light (nur) was often regarded as the greatest Divine Blessing – indeed a symbol of God. That is why Raushaniyyas (of Bayazid Ansari) are called Tārkiyyah(followers of Darkness). Since Sovereignty was a Divine Ray of Light, the sovereign, though himself not divine, was called upon to work as an Agent of God, and thus partook of the authority and burdens that were fashioned, as it were, ‘in the image of God’. Just as God’s favours (sunlight, rain etc) fell on all irrespective of religious beliefs, so too the sovereign could not discriminate, in dispensing favours, between the votaries of the different faiths. This became the doctrine for justifying the tolerant religious policy initiated by Akbar.

The concept of divinely illumined kingship could be associated  to both the Indian and Persian tradition, and such multicultural concepts held a special attraction for the Mughals in their attempt to legitimate themselves as padshahs of a highly diverse empire. Akbar  elaborated on  his father Humayun’s  associations with the sun, he appeared at sunrise like a traditional Indian king or a Hindu deity for  public viewing (darshan)  and his subjects prostrated themselves before him.

Being derived directly from God, sovereignty need not be restricted by association with any particular sect, or faith. Thus this was a theory of sovereignty which suited a multi-religious country like India. It was not a totally ‘secular’ concept in the modern sense of the term. For being God’s agent, there were certain spiritual obligations: promote certain religious beliefs, eg of God, his Light as His Symbol as well as in promotion of inter-sectarian peace, the sulh-i kul. However it was a theory which rested on two contradictory positions: the rationalistic theory of Social Contract and the other a non-rationalistic theory of divine origin.

Thus the theory of sovereignty of Akbar was based on Heredity, Rationalism as well as mystical and religious traditions. He had the power to rule as he was the successor to the imperial authorities of Chingiz and Timur, then as per a social contract, he was there as he could formulate civil order. And then, he was the possessor of a mystical power. He had esoteric knowledge and authority greater than the recognized interpreters of the Shariat (i.e., the mujtahid of the age). His knowledge and authority were greater than the most saintly sufi masters (pir) or of that of the most renowned of the charismatic saviours: the Mahdi. He was the mujtahid, the pir-o murshid as well as the imam-i adil. According to Abul Fazl, he possessed refulgent (shining very brightly) power which was the gift of the ‘World-Adorning Creator’.

Not only that, but his tolerant policy, which in the first place was because of the reasons discussed above, also a tool to extend his universal theory of kingship. In a letter to Shah Abbas, written in 1549, Akbar expresses that his own tolerant stance towards different religions and cultures gave him the right to rule on them:

‘As it has been our disposition from the beginning of our attaining discretion to this day not to pay attention to differences in religion and variety of manners and to regard the tribes of mankind as the servants of God, we have endeavoured to regulate mankind in general’.

Thus tolerance could also serve as an instrument of rulership.

Akbar associated himself not only with historical, mythical and spiritual kingship to strengthen his own authority as a ruler; he widened this frame of references and sought access to the contemporary family of rulers of the world. He states this explicitly in his letter of 1582 to Philip II whom he tried to win for an alliance against the Ottomans:

“..we are, with the whole power of our mind, earnestly striving to establish and strengthen the bonds of love, harmony and union among the population, but above all with the exalted tribe [ ta`ifa, here better “family”] of princes [sultans], who enjoy the noblest of distinctions in consequence of a greater (share of the) divine favour, and especially with that illustrious representative of dominion, recipient of divine illumination and propagator of the Christian religion…”

Akbar implied that he was superior to other rulers, like Philip II or Shah `Abbas, because they accepted only one religion and acted merely within one culture while he his tolerance gave him the moral authority to take care of all mankind and thus he was a true universal king.

• Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi